From Iceland — Sour Grapes And Stuff

Sour Grapes And Stuff

Published October 27, 2010

Sour Grapes And Stuff

Incorrect statements, wrong conclusions
Paul Nikolov wrote an article in the 13th issue of the Grapevine 2010 on troubles in the Evangelical Lutheran church of Iceland and the separation of church and state. I find many of his statements incorrect, conclusions wrong and the article therefore misleading, not informing.
Decidedly irreligious?
The article states in its opening paragraph that most Icelanders are “decidedly irreligious or not very religious”. According the most comprehensive study done on religiosity in Iceland this century app. 70% of those asked said that they were religious. The survey also shows that 30% pray daily or more, 55% pray once per week or more. App. 60% say the Lord’s prayer once per week or more, 29% say it daily. This survey was conducted by Gallup for the ELCI and the University of Iceland in 2004, not in 2006 for the Humanist association as is stated by Nikolov who quotes from the survey about church attendance. The survey asks specifically about regular Sunday service, not about how or if people go to church for other services or activities, therefore even that quote from Nikolov is misleading.
These numbers would not by any sociologist of religion be interpreted as being a sign of “not very religious” nation.
A little background
Þjóðkirkjan, The ELCI, became established when Icelanders received home rule in 1904 (not 1874 as is stated by Nikolov). That transition was part of increasing independence of Iceland from Denmark. The church at that time had substantial land, of which the state took guardianship in 1907, instead paying salaries of pastors. Until then most pastors did not receive salaries but were farmers on lands belonging to their parish. This agreement is the basis for present agreement between the church and state regarding salaries of a certain number of pastors. Contrary to Nikolov’s conclusion, it is not part of or dependent on the clause in the constitution about the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a National Church of Iceland and as such protected and supported by the state. A change in relations does not necessitate chance in the agreement. These are two separate issues, something which sadly is often not clear to parliamentarians in Iceland.
Paul Nikolov states that the church receives 5 billion ISK in form of state revenues. A close look at this reveals that Nikolov is wrong again. The figure comes from the budget, covering government expenditures on religious issues. Of this, some 917 million goes to the cemeteries, a separate institution from the church and serving all, religious or not religious. Of the remaining 4.1 billion, some 1,8 billion is membership payments to the ELCI. The state collects membership payments for all registered religious associations in Iceland, some 240 million ISK is collected for other religious associations – the amount is higher for ELCI as it has some 80% of the population as members. Some 2 billion ISK are received as salaries according to the land agreement or payments to separate funds due to various agreements, for example the preservation of over 200 listed (protected as heritage) churches around the country.
Public records
Paul Nikolov states that in the National Registry “all Icelanders are registered with the church by default.” This is simply wrong. According to present legislation children are registered in the same religious association as their mother – also if the mother is outside religious associations.
In a rather confusing narrative of what has happened in the handling of accusations of sexual abuse in the church Nikolov states that the ELCI Advisory Board on sexual misconduct did not disclose how many cases it had handled during more than a decade of work. The truth is that this was disclosed August 17th, well in time for the publication of the article, which included references to much later happenings. At the time, five cases had been reported to the committee.
Another misunderstanding of Nikolov´s regards his comments on disclosure of police records of church staff. These have been enforced for applicants in children and youth work but according to new regulations, from the General Assembly November 2009, all staff will bee screened and the proposed screening is much more thorough.
Change in relations?
The general description of events in the article is muddled. The church has said, and said repeatedly, that the handling of complaints in 1996 of sexual offence against former bishop Skulason, was regrettable. There were simply no institutions in the church where these complaints could be channeled and the church did not have the independence that it achieved with legislation from 1997. Two committees now handle complaints to the church and complaints of sexual offences are channeled to the Advisory Board where sufferers receive support and help to take action.
It would have been easy for Nikolov to find this information had he contacted the ELCI.
While Nikolov’s article is not helpful in understanding recent events, there is no question that the past few weeks have been a difficult time for the church and also for the nation with new information about the former bishop. It remains uncertain whether this will be the deciding factor in the relationship of church and nation as Nikolov predicted. It may affect the upcoming discussion on relationship between church and state which will undoubtedly be part of the process to review the constitution. Most people, however, judge the church by the service they get in their parish and reports from parishes show that participation in congregations have not diminished, but in many cases increased this autumn.
Steinunn A. Björnsdóttir, Pastor and Project manager in the ELCI
Dear Steinunn,
thank you for your letter. It is most informative. We also think it’s cool that we’ve got members of the clergy reading our paper – and actually contributing to it! Kudos to you! Anyway, we thought it would be best if Paul responded to your letter. If you want to respond back to him courtesy of us, please do so! We love discourse!
PS – we’re giving you our FREE BEER OF THE ISSUE. If you’re not into drinking it, you can always pass it along to someone else. We still suggest you venture to Bakkus and share the beers with Paul. He could even interview you! Now, here’s Paul:
Dear Steinunn,
First, I want to thank you for taking the time and effort to pen such a long letter. I was at first very pleased to see an official from the National Church responding to the points brought up in my article. But then I became disappointed when it became clear that where you didn’t completely misread what I’d written, you engaged in rhetorical acrobatics to avoid painful truths.
1. I was confused when you attempted to correct which poll I was referring to when I said that most Icelanders are decidedly irreligious. The fact is, you’re citing a poll from 2004, and I’m citing one from 2006. I am not citing “the wrong survey” any more than you are—mine is just more recent. And speaking of recent polls, a Capacent poll just published shows 73% of Icelanders favouring separation of church and state.
2. You’re absolutely right that home rule was established in 1904, and not in 1874. Fortunately, I never said any such thing. In the very first sentence of my article, I said, “The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland has been a part of the government since the constitution established it as such in 1874.” This is in reference to the constitution drafted at that time, which specifies that the “Evangelical Lutheran Church is a national church and as such it is protected and supported by the State.”
3. The National Church does indeed receive about 5 billion ISK each year from the state, and I find it very telling that you ignored one of the major points of my piece, i.e., clergy salaries, in particular, how the bishop makes about 1 million ISK per month. To say that a large portion of the money the Church gets comes from members of the congregation is a bit misleading—all Icelanders are registered with the National Church by default. But what about the change to legislation, you argue, wherein children born in Iceland are registered in the same religion as their mothers? Things brings us to:
4. The “mother clause” is reminiscent of the “grandfather clause” of the American South in the days of segregation. The grandfather clause said that anyone could vote whose grandfather could—it seems as though it’s a change from outright banning African-Americans from voting, but as their grandfathers certainly couldn’t vote, neither could they. By the same token, as all these mothers born a generation ago in Iceland were automatically registered in the National Church, just what religion can we expect all these children to be registered in today?
5. The events surrounding cases of sexual abuse within the Church are indeed muddled, but I think the purposeful reticence of the Church is more to blame for this than my own writing. That constant media pressure finally compelled the Church to reveal just how many cases of sexual abuse have gone on within its walls shouldn’t be a source of pride but a source of shame. Overall, I was let down by your response, and I say this as a person with nothing but respect for the Christian faith in general, and the National Church in particular. I hope someday the Church devotes less time to accusing members of the media of dishonesty and more time to fixing what needs fixing within their own institution.
Paul F. Nikolov

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